Where I Am From: A Poem of Heritage

I am from laundry dried on the clothesline, Tropicana orange juice, and Johnson & Johnson’s baby oil. I am from Vicks in the winter and school supplies bought at Woolworth before September. I am from a three-story, green, attached house … Continue reading

Home, Sweet Home

Dear Home, I miss you. I miss what you used to give me: shelter, warmth, and security. I miss running up and down your steps—taking the stairs two at a time and always jumping down from three up (much to … Continue reading

My Christmas Memories

In conjuring up my earliest Christmas memories, I’m taken back to when there was just mom, dad, and me. We were living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I was still eager to point out that my birth had transformed my … Continue reading

When We Laugh

Family trips are a rarity in my family. When I was a young child, my parents would send me to Grenada for a month. Sometimes one or both of them would join me for a week or so. After my … Continue reading

To Be Heard

I have two buttons that, when pushed, elicit a strong emotional response. I hate being interrupted (or talked over) and I detest being shushed. At the base of these pet peeves (or emotional allergies) is a common root: I have a need to be heard. When I’m speaking, I want to feel listened to.

Being shushed brings me back to my childhood. As a kid who loved and respected her parents like they were celebrities or gurus, feeling as though I’d disappointed either of them crushed me. I didn’t require spankings or time in a “time out.” A look of displeasure or disappointment from my parents (or a teacher) left me in a tailspin of remorse and shame (albeit a temporary one). In the moment, I wasn’t always able to separate their distaste for my actions from an aversion to me. In the moment, I became convinced that I’d lost their affection and would need to re-earn it.

Much like my mother was, I am an exuberant speaker. As my passion for whatever I’m talking about increases, so does my voice’s volume. The school I attended trained me to speak up to be heard—to make certain I got credit for my thoughts and words.

My father, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken man. I’ve heard him be stern, but in thirty-five years I’ve never (never!) heard him yell—not in pain, not in celebration, not in anger, not even for a taxi. His name, Clement, does mean temperate. I suppose in naming him his parents were a bit prophetic. I don’t know how he manages it or where his anger goes, but his temper is uniformly clement. He’s always in control.

Perhaps he doesn’t have to raise his voice because he grew to be so tall. Perhaps he can speak softly because he’s too big to be ignored.

I’m short. I have to try to be heard. And every now and again, when I was a child, my father would shush me. Now while I imagine he was simply trying to teach me to act in consideration of my surroundings (and to stop me from disturbing him or others) a “shush from him was a devastating blow—emotionally, it hit me hard.

Being shushed by my father made me feel as though he’d caught me doing something wrong—found me wild, uncivilized, and out of control. I felt sure I’d disappointed him by being too raucous to be his good little girl. His shush saddened me because I thought it carried his disapproval. It stung like a slap. It reeked like rejection. I felt emotionally disowned or abandoned—as though the sound of the “shush” stood for the distance he wanted to put between us.

As I got older, I learned that a parent’s love is more indelible than that—it’s permanent, in fact. I’ve learned that anyone who truly loves me will continue to love me even if they dislike some of my actions. But, to this day, my first response to being shushed is a regurgitation of the shame my childhood reprimands brought up. It’s an emotional smack that gives my sensibilities a jolt. It causes a number of my old insecurities to resurface.

When puberty developed my body, it also made me insecure. Already an introvert by nature, I got quieter. But that could only last so long. Athletics and academics wouldn’t let me stay silent. I wanted to be a good sport (and team captain). That meant cheering on my teammates and being vocal when I was playing. I was a perfectionist as a student, and class participation mattered. If I wanted the A, I needed to speak up. So I rediscovered my voice in the classroom and on the volleyball court.

While it doesn’t affect me as deeply as being shushed, I also have a strong aversion to being cut off. I assume you’re not listening when you ignore or interrupt. For me, being heard is akin to being seen. When I don’t feel listened to, I feel invisible—or like I’m being erased. All I hear in your interruption is, “Your words and thoughts don’t matter as much as this.” It’s as though you see me as small or you’re trying to shrink me down. I feel like a lost child going against the current of commuters at rush hour.

Here’s the thing though: I’m such a hypocrite. Even though I hate when it’s done to me, I interrupt others relentlessly. One of the academic survival skills I developed was how to cut someone off like an assassin. Whether consciously or not, I’ll identify points of verbal weakness in my target (be it classmate, teacher, or companion). That pause to collect his or her thoughts, or that beat to take a breath—stop speaking for just a moment, and I’ll start shooting my words in. I occupy conversations and stake my claim on every silence. And I rarely retreat until my words are acknowledged. And if someone tries to cut me off, I’ll raise my voice until I’ve silenced him or her.

I’m working on it (really), but I’ll cut you off verbally in a heartbeat. Say something that excites me or inspires an idea or memory and, more times than not, words will come spilling out of me. I also have this horrible habit of finishing other people’s sentences. In my excitement (or impatience) I’ll jump in and try to predict your thoughts like I’m a Wheel of Fortune contestant. And I’m a complete jerk about it too. So much so that I once found myself interrupting a girl with a stutter. I was mortified, but I still couldn’t (or didn’t) stop myself. (My belated and heartfelt apologies to her.)

Given how much I like to talk and my deep desire to be heard, it puzzles me when I don’t speak up—when I hold my tongue. On more than one occasion, I have been a silent victim. I have been pressed body to body with strangers on a crowded subway train and then felt something hard pressing into me. (What is that? Why is it moving?) Silence. (Is that someone’s penis!?) Silence. (No, it can’t be.) Silence. (Quit your denial and say something!) Silence. (Yell! Scream!). Silence.

I felt trapped and muzzled in my violation. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t see who it was. I could barely turn around. (Should I turn around? Or will that only make it worse?)

I still don’t fully understand why, but the few times this form of sexual harassment happened to me, I held my tongue and suffered silently. I’d slide my bag down to create a barrier, but not once did I say anything to the offender.

Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I speak up? Or, better yet, why didn’t I take “matters” into my own hands (with a forceful twist or pull)? Instead of suffering in silence, I should have made those perverts yell.